The 2008-09 Gaza Conflict

Singapore, 14 January 2009

The conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas rages on—if ‘rages’ is the right word to use for an almost one-sided offensive. The region has seen more than 40 years of start-and-stop warfare with official, ratified and unofficial ceasefires being the brief interludes. However, the latest Israeli offensive into Gaza has a slightly different feel to it. I believe that this offensive against Hamas should be analysed while taking into account the Israel-Hezbollah conflict in 2006.

In order to understand this conflict, it is necessary to have a skimming knowledge of the history behind it. Israel was created in 1948 as a home for the then state-less Jewish people of the world. I suspect it was also an unmentioned act of repentance on the part of the western world (there being no other world, most of the rest of the world being colonial holdings of the west) for having turned a blind eye to the prosecution of the Jews that went on within the Nazi regime. I have no questions about the legitimacy of the founding borders of the nation.

Note: There are historians and academics of repute who still see the creation of Israel as the doing of the ‘West’ and question its legality and legitimacy to exist. I believe that there is a limit to the number of years that a nation or people can go back to reclaim land, or ask for compensation for real or presumed offences committed against them. History cannot be rewritten or put right by actions taken in the present.

The Israeli occupation of Palestine territories began after the Six-Day War of 1967. Israel claimed that is was required to assure the nation’ security at that time. Over a period of years the occupation has degenerated into a ‘religious’ conflict with claims and counter claims from both sides. I do not doubt that Palestinians are normal people with normal aspirations, no better or worse than any other group of citizens from any other nation. The issue has now become one of militant resistance, clouded in religious inanity that is spread by both sides, and growing more intransient with both the sides becoming less inclined to accommodation as the issue festers further. The length of the conflict, the hardships suffered by people from both sides, the visibility of the hardliners more than far-thinking diplomats, the lack of cohesiveness within the political process of the Palestinians, the opportune support of other nations within the region and further afield to either side, the cynical view of very influential people and organisations that there is no solution to the problem, the renewed interest in the militancy of Hamas post-September 11, all have contributed to the current imbroglio that seems without a solution!

I think that the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah conflict has a more than casual impact on the current situation, from a military point of view. In that conflict, the Hezbollah itself and a number of their ardent supporter nations declared that they were the winners because they were not defeated. If victory is defined as not being defeated to a level wherein the group stops to exist, then yes, it was a victory for Hezbollah. But military victory is more than avoiding defeat; it is the achievement of laid down objectives. Of course there is no suggestion that the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) achieved their stated objectives in this particular case. The point here is that the deterrence that Israel had established after the conventional wars of 1967 and 1973 was largely eroded after the 2006 conflict. How did that come about, especially since the IDF is unquestionably the most competent force in the region?

After the resounding victory of the IDF in both the conventional wars mentioned above, the nations arrayed against Israel started to turn a blind eye towards groups, mostly religion-based, that were coming into prominence, even though some of them had been in existence for a number of years before. These non-state groups readily turned to guerrilla warfare as a means of neutralising Israel’s conventional military superiority. This was not new, the same tactics having been adopted by a number of militant groups fighting for varied reasons with established governments of their nations, around the world. The innovation that the Middle Eastern groups brought about was the injection of religious fanaticism into the fight that made suicide bombings almost a norm, leading to a hitherto unknown definition of asymmetric warfare. Israel’s hard won deterrence started to diminish almost immediately. By 2006, the dilution of conventional deterrence had reached its nadir. The fact that Hezbollah questioned the might of the IDF and managed to survive, making their simple survival as an entity a victory, was a resounding declaration of the irrelevance of deterrence as a state policy. I think that one of the primary aims of the IDF in the current Gaza conflict is to re-establish the validity of deterrence as a strategic security tool for the government.

Deterrence of any kind; military, political or economic; can only exist as long as it equals the fear of defeat in the adversary. In a situation wherein the adversary can only be defeated through annihilation because merely surviving is proclaimed as victory by them, what is the status of deterrence? I would suggest, almost non-existent. Israel is currently beset with this dilemma—how can deterrence be re-established, and how much destruction will bring the recalcitrant Hamas to an understanding of what they stand to lose by continuing this conflict. At least for now deterrence does not seem to be getting re-established!

For Israel the difficulties of gaining an undisputed victory in this conflict are many. Even though the leadership has been very careful to mention that they would not occupy Gaza, the IDF is seen as the aggressor, at least from a Palestinian perspective. This has only increased the local support to Hamas, rather than reduce it which is one of the prime objectives of the military action. At least for now, after 18 days of conflict, the Palestinian people are not convinced that their hardship has been brought on by the actions of Hamas, quiet the contrary. Victory for a sovereign state fighting an amorphous entity can only come with the complete destruction of the group. In conventional conflict this can be achieved by dealing a catastrophic ‘decisive blow’ to the primary centre of gravity of the adversary. However, in the case of a non-state, ill-defined entity, what is the centre of gravity? What form should the decisive blow take? Can it be military alone?

Hamas has steadfastly refused to change its stated objective to destroy Israel. I believe that the need of the hour, to stem the humanitarian calamity that is rapidly looming in Gaza, is for the leaders of Hamas to understand that only a long peace will create the necessary strength within Palestine to become a strong and vibrant nation. There is no dearth of talent in the nation—it lacks cohesive and strong leadership that can see far into the future, into a future wherein the nation will be able to stand side-by-side with other democratic nations of the world. Without such a radical change in the domestic politics of Palestine, the cycle of start-and-stop wars and uneasy short-lived peace will continue, mainly to their detriment. Now is the time for a leader of vision!

There is one more point that I need to examine. Of course, there is also the viewpoint that the current (and previous?) conflict is really a conflict between two nations—Israel and Palestine. Israelis, though predominantly Jewish, are also Christians and Muslims and likewise Palestinians, though overwhelmingly Muslim, are also Christians. Therefore, it may not be strictly correct if this conflict is considered a religious conflict, especially since the Palestinians genuinely believe that they are trying to defend their homeland against external aggressors. There is a truism in this. I would support this view of a conflict between two sovereign states, especially if the entire human race across the world were to identify themselves by the countries that they live in and are citizens of, irrespective of their religious and other affiliations. If people from other nations condemn one or the other protagonists in this conflict (or any other for that matter) purely because of their individual religious beliefs and a sense of solidarity with their co-religionist in either Israel or Gaza, then the colour of the conflict changes with very dark connotations. I believe it is imperative to stem this cancerous thought process if nation-states as the democratic world defines them are to survive.

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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